Homeowners, Experts Find Death of Trees a Mystery

Times Staff Writer

Robbie Jacobson's yard stood out from others in her neighborhood when she moved to Woodland Hills five years ago. Hers was the only one with a vacant space where its curb-side pepper tree should have been.

"I was embarrassed," Jacobson recalled. "I started saving up to buy a tree to go into the empty spot."

Jacobson is not alone anymore. Twenty-five of the other 60-year-old trees along the 22000 block of Dumetz Road have died mysteriously, leaving homeowners frustrated and officials puzzled.

Tree experts have blamed the deaths on old age, the drought, burrowing gophers and poisonous underground gas. Acting on that last theory, utility companies have searched without success for leaks that may be affecting the trees.

On Tuesday, Los Angeles city officials asked two major oil companies to check for leaks along crude oil pipelines buried on a hill half a mile from Dumetz Road.

'Continuing to Look'

"We can't explain it so we're continuing to look at it," said Gabriel Bustamante, an administrative assistant to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, who is investigating the problem of the dying trees.

"Some of the trees out there look like they're dead or dying. The analysis I've been given is they're dying from top to bottom, which would indicate it's a root problem," Bustamante said.

Residents say they are worried that whatever is killing the Dumetz trees will spread to other stately trees planted along streets in 1926 by Woodland Hills' original subdivider, Victor Girard. He planted 118,000 seedlings, mostly pepper trees and eucalyptus, which are green year-round.

Jacobson said she took the money she had planned to spend on her replacement tree and hired an expert to examine the dying pepper trees on the block.

Her consultant, soils scientist James P. Barry of Fullerton, said Tuesday that his preliminary tests show that there is nothing chemically wrong with the Woodland Hills dirt.

That other plants and shrubs along the street are also dying suggests that "some underground vapors are escaping" and poisoning them, Barry said. "In my 16 years of work, I've never seen anything like it," he said.

Peter Fliegel, a Los Angeles County plant pathologist, disagrees.

In a report issued late last month to city officials, Fliegel blamed the dying trees on this year's drought and on the curb-side pepper trees' "restricted root system."

'Poor Quality' Subsoil

Fliegel said he found the subsoil in the area "to be of especially poor quality" and found a subterranean rock formation that may have prevented the trees from forming a deep root system.

On Tuesday, he dismissed the poisoning theory. "People always try to blame everything on something and don't realize plants are living things that are dependent on climate and other changes," Fliegel said.

Residents of Dumetz Road said it is baffling that their trees are dying and that those on other nearby streets are not. Whatever is killing the pepper trees is spreading to other trees, hedges, flower beds and shrubs, they said.

"I had cypress trees and juniper bushes here, and they're gone," said George Ratcliff, who has lived on the street for 30 years. "I planted primrose over there, and they didn't last two weeks. My hedge tree went, boom, just like that. Two rose bushes in the back are dying."

In front of his next-door neighbor's house, a 50-foot pepper tree, which died earlier this year, stands hauntingly between the sidewalk and the street. Ratcliff said he hopes it is removed quickly.

"When my pepper tree died, the city didn't do anything, and it finally fell over into my driveway and crushed my car," Ratcliff said.

"It's very frustrating not knowing what the heck to plant next. Maybe the soil out here is just worn out. I don't know what else could be causing it."

Whatever it is, Jacobson said she hopes it is discovered before other pepper trees in the area succumb.

"I picked this place because of the trees," she said. "They give this neighborhood a sense of tranquillity and a protected feeling. We've got to do something now to protect them."

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